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Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union

  • 3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

This exhibition is no joke, even if the title echoes one of those quips about how Communist regimes like to convince their people that they are living in paradise. If a whole room of hardened crims from Chelyabinsk's modern-day Gulag showing off their tattoos doesn't wipe the smile off your face, then another suite of photographs, of Soviet tower block residents sitting with their legs dangling out the window, probably will. Then again, these hapless 'Neighbours' shot in grisly black-and-white by Vikenti Nilin since 1993, at least look comfortable in their position of peril, unlike the Ukrainian tramps unsympathetically posed by Boris Mikhailov in his widely exhibited 'Case History' series of 1998.

If this example of resolutely not-new art from Russia is largely what is wrong with Charles Saatchi's latest acquisitions spree, then what is really recent provides most of what is right. Balancing historical reference and the future of picture making, Yelena Popova is one of the best young painters working in Britain right now, never mind where she was born (the Urals).

Also based here is Muscovite sculptor Nika Neelova, whose charred gallows and cast bell clappers cast a deathly pall over the brightly lit galleries. Other standouts include Liudmila Konstantinova's 'Paintings for Holes in My Studio' and Irina Korina's column of corrugated fence, Capital' (2012), crushing its innards of plastic-bagged clothing – a neat metaphor for the converse consumer desperation that's replaced the queues and hunger of before.

Again with these area-specific global snapshots of current art, Saatchi somehow manages to be ahead of the game and yet lagging miles behind. There are plenty of galleries catering to Russian tastes in London at the moment, but no one has yet attempted a survey of this magnitude. Rather than appearing fleet-footed, however, Saatchi's tastes seem retrograde, hankering after the visceral throat-hold of his original YBA charges.

Those Russian prisoner tattoos, for instance, have been published in book form by the Chapman Brothers, whose work is also echoed in Gosha Ostretsov's sinister cell-like, mannequin-filled installations. There's a touch of Sarah Lucas in Daniel Bragin's sorry-looking sand and PVC 'Lady', while Richard Billingham's photographs of his dysfunctional family actually pre-date Mikhailov. Of course, to paraphrase Marx, what goes around comes around, but then I'd rather see what's coming next, not what's gone before.


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